Arts & Entertainment

Photographer Danny Lyon, a visual voice of the disempowered

Port au Prince, Haiti
Port au Prince, Haiti "Copa Club", from Merci Gonaïves, 1983.
Copyright Danny Lyon/Magnum Photos

KPCC's cultural correspondent Marc Haefele reviews "Danny Lyon: Vintage Works" at  Fahey/Klein Gallery through December 23.

These days, Danny Lyon keeps busy making movies and writing books. He lives off the grid with his wife Nancy in a home he built with a friend near the little town of Bernalillo. New Mexico, where “No one here is ineligible for Obamacare,” he says. “Busy is good,” says the 75-year-old whose pioneering documentary photography redefined the camera’s eye as the aperture of New Journalism.

Lyon’s nearly year-long photo show, “Message to the Future,’’ just closed at New York’s Whitney Museum. The Whitney’s first photographic retrospective, it received rave reviews in the Eastern press. But if you missed that New York show, a generous sampling of the work that made him famous is at Hollywood’s Fahey/Klein Gallery.

"Born to Film" by Danny Lyon

“Bleak Beauty” is the name of Lyon’s web site, and it perfectly defines his work. It is lovely and it evokes the bleak simplicity of poverty and want.  He starts with the Civil Rights struggle of the early '60s, when a few Freedom Riders and an insurgent group called the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee began the modern fight for equal rights in the Deep South. New York-born Danny was there, fresh from the University of Chicago (he was a classmate of Bernie Sanders), working as SNCC’s official photographer. When he got there, he says, “I was not a dedicated anything.” But he was soon caught up in the struggle; to this day, his mode of operation is to get involved with the people he films.

Cliff Vaughs, SNCC photographer, Arrested, Cambridge MD Spring, from Memories of The Southern Civil Rights Movement, 1964
Cliff Vaughs, SNCC photographer, Arrested, Cambridge MD Spring, from Memories of The Southern Civil Rights Movement, 1964
Copyright Danny Lyon/Magnum Photos

This is evident in his SNCC work. While in most of his Civil Rights photos the violence is latent, sometimes it is straight-out overpowering. As another SNCC photographer, Cliff Vaughs, is arrested, it appears that he’s being torn apart. His work got dangerous. “I don’t move when people shoot at me,” he said, “because I’m afraid I’ll lose the [photo].”

The involvement continued in the mid-60s, as Lyon rode his vintage 1953 Triumph TR-6 with the “Chicago Outlaws” gang. The result was his masterpiece 1968 book-length photographic essay, “The Bikeriders,” generously sampled in the Fahey show, which includes his famous shot “Crossing the Ohio River, Louisville.” The rider has just doffed his helmet—his hair flies free in the wind. It’s a total evocation -- within a single frame -- of the '60s ideal of Freedom of the Road.

Crossing the Ohio, from The Bikeriders, 1965.
Crossing the Ohio, from The Bikeriders, 1965.
Copyright Danny Lyon/Magnum Photos

There are just three shots from his 1969 “Destruction of Lower Manhattan” book—the demolition of the last of a fine old cast-iron-fronted building on Beekman Street , two demo workers, brandishing their tools,  standing side by side in an antique doorway.

View south from 100 Gold Street, New York, from The Destruction of Lower Manhattan, 1967
View south from 100 Gold Street, New York, from The Destruction of Lower Manhattan, 1967
Copyright Danny Lyon/Magnum Photos

The third is a low-altitude shot of Lower Manhattan of 50 years ago, just before it burst forth in impersonal, glass-faced renewal. The 60-acre area Lyon photographed was leveled to accommodate the doomed World Trade Center. After 9/11, he says, he sold the prints of “Destruction” for $250,000.

The Fahey/Klein show begins with pictures from his 1971 “Conversations with the Dead’’ book, perhaps his grimmest work. Somehow, Lyon got permission to photograph the inside of  the Texas prison system. “I talked as fast as I could,” is how he now puts it. 

Texas, Line, from Conversations with the Dead, 1968
Texas, Line, from Conversations with the Dead, 1968
Copyright Danny Lyon/Magnum Photos

His photography includes little of the violence inherent in the system, but is damning nonetheless: particularly his shots of “the Line,” black convicts in pale jump suits picking cotton on the Ferguson Prison Farm under the supervision of a super-tough strawboss on a horse. Together, these pictures offer a paradigm of institutional human degradation.

In the 1970s and `80s, as the Fahey show demonstrates, Lyon kept on taking pictures, but increasingly he made documentary films. He’s made 16 so far, including "Los Ninos Olvidados," a wrenching piece about Colombia’s abandoned children.

He is now working on another,  about the relatives of the subject of one of his best-known movies: Willie Jaramillo, a  man he once described (in the New York Review of Books) as an “abused, ex-convict tough guy.’” Through several films, Lyon has told Willie’s life story.

In his recent book-essay, a passionate cry-out against global warming called "Burn Zone," Lyon says he “realized when I was young that one of the great dilemmas of modern life was the utter powerlessness of the individual."

It’s a dilemma he’s confronted in a 55-year career in which he’s shown his light on the disempowerment of the individual, the disenfranchised, the unwanted, the underserved, and the discarded ... and dropped it in our laps. Where we can’t ignore it, nor forget it.